Justice And Human Error
Law and order are the basic ingredients of a civilized society. Judaism
abhors anarchy and disorder. The Torah therefore orders Jewish society to
create a system of justice - of judges and police and the rule of law. The
Torah demands that we pursue justice. But not simply justice but rather
righteousness, fairness and a sense of the rule of law and of an equitable
judicial system. It is only a society that feels that it can rely on an
equitable and reliable system of justice that can achieve community
harmony, serenity and unity of purpose. The Torah, ever realistic and
never naively optimistic about the true nature of human beings and their
society, ordains that a system of justices and police be instituted
throughout the Land of Israel in order to assure the basic requirement for
a just, peaceful and unified society.
The Torah also warns us against the corruption of the governmental and
judicial system. It teaches us that corruption destroys the vision of even
the most righteous and pious of individuals. Corruption comes in many
forms. It need not take the gross form of actual monetary bribery.
Corruption, in the Jewish sense, includes prejudices, bigotry,
insensitivity to others and pre-formed opinions about matters. People with
strong personal agendas rarely if ever make for fair and unbiased judges.
I think that perhaps one of the reasons that Judaism prefers courts
composed of at least three judges is the realization that almost all
humans possess such personal agendas and with a number of judges, their
conflicting personal agendas cancel each other out and allow for a more
unbiased hearing of the issues of the case under consideration. The
recognition that humans by nature are subject to corruption, if not the
venal kind at least the more subtle but equally dangerous personal
prejudicial kind, allows for countermeasures to be taken to obtain
fairness and equity in judicial matters.
The Torah also allows for the possibility of error in rendering judicial
decisions. Because of this recognition of human fallibility, the death
penalty as a practical matter was never really part of the Jewish judicial
system. Nevertheless, a single erroneous decision by a court does not in
itself undermine the confidence of the public in the judicial system per
se. The Talmud stated that the rule of law - of the courts of each and
every generation - should be respected even if eventually proven to be
factually erroneous. Any system of human justice is by definition error-
prone. It is the corruption of the judicial system rather than its
possible mistakes that threatens its viability and public standing. And it
is upon the prevention of this corruption of the judicial system that the
Torah places emphasis. These are lessons that are as relevant to our
society as they were in the days of Moshe. For we too are still commanded
to pursue righteousness by righteous means with judges and courts of
quality and fairness.
Rabbi Berel Wein
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Berel Wein and Torah.org
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